Why Is My Child a Picky Eater?

by Mary Mullen, MS and Jo Ellen Shield, MED LD

Why Is My Child a Picky Eater?

Being a picky eater can be a natural state for young children. They are born with an instinctive desire for sweet and salty foods, and an instinctive aversion to sour and bitter tastes. These instincts are a trait left over from our "caveman" days. Back then, the reflex to reject sour-bitter foods served as a survival mechanism so that youngsters wouldn't wander off and nibble on poisonous plants and berries – many of which are not sweet. Today, however, this reflex is one of the key reasons so many kids become picky eaters and shun fruits and vegetables.

Luckily, kids can eventually overcome this tendency by being repeatedly exposed to foods they initially reject. Just be patient. Offer picky kids some of the sweeter-tasting vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes and acorn squash, and don't push them to eat more bitter options – such as broccoli, green beans, cauliflower and dark leafy greens like spinach – if they reject them (but try again another day). Also, make sure fruits are ripe, sweet and juicy. Hold off on sour or tart fruits like grapefruit or granny smith apples until your child's taste buds mature.

Kids' natural preference for sweet-salty foods and rejection of bitter-sour foods has a yin-and-yang effect on their eating habits. Researchers call this neophobia (fear of new foods). Studies have found that neophobia reaches its peak between the ages of two and six years – when rejection of vegetables reaches an all-time high. This phobia explains why children in this stage of development often go on food jags in which they will eat only one or two foods that they like and refuse to eat anything else. Most kids outgrow food jags if parents and other caregivers don't make a big deal about their food preferences.

What to Say to Encourage Picky Eaters

  • Choose phrases that help point out the sensory qualities of food, like, "This kiwi fruit is sweet like strawberry." Or, "These radishes are very crunchy!" They encourage your child to try new foods.
  • Avoid phrases that teach your child to eat for approval and love, like, "Eat that for me." Or, "If you do not eat one more bite, I will be mad." This can lead your child to have unhealthy behaviors, attitudes and beliefs about food and about themselves.
  • Choose phrases that help your child recognize when he or she is full, like, "Is your stomach telling you that you're full?" "Is your stomach still making its hungry growling noise?" "Has your tummy had enough?" These statements can help prevent overeating.
  • Avoid phrases that encourage kids to ignore signs of fullness, like, "You're such a big girl; you finished all your peas." "Look at your sister. She all of her bananas." Or, "You have to take one more bite before you leave the table."
  • Choose phrases that make your child feel like he or she is making the choices, like, "Do you like that?" "Which one is your favorite?" Or, "Everyone likes different foods, don't they?" These statements shift the focus toward the taste of food rather than who was right.
  • Avoid phrases that imply a child was wrong to refuse a food, like "See, that didn't taste so bad, did it?" These statements can lead to unhealthy attitudes about food or self.
  • Choose phrases that comfort or reward you child with attention and kind words, like, "I am sorry you are sad. Come here and let me give you a big hug." Show love by spending time and having fun together.
  • Avoid phrases that make some foods seem like a comfort, like, "Stop crying and I will give you a cookie." Getting a food treat when upset teaches you child to eat to feel better. This can cause overeating.
  • Avoid phrases that make food seem like a reward or like they are better than other foods, such as, "No dessert until you eat your vegetables." A better way to encourage your child to keep trying vegetables might be, "We can try these vegetables again another time. Next time would you like to eat them raw instead of cooked?"

Adapted from MyPlate: Phrases That Help and Hinder poster

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About the authors:

Mary C Mullen MS

Mary Mullen, MS

Co-author of "Healthy Eating, Healthy Weight for Kids and Teens" from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, published by Eat Right Press, Chicago, iL. Visit Mary's website at
Jo Ellen Shield MED LD

Jo Ellen Shield, MED LD

Jodie Shield (Jo Ellen Shield) is co-author of "Healthy Eating, Healthy Weight for Kids and Teens" from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, published by Eat Right Press, Chicago, iL. Visit Jodie's website at




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